I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but notice how cultivating a “culture of learning” is growing in importance within our organizations. The learning formats businesses are using cover a wide range: one-on-one coaching, traditional classroom teaching, “on demand” online training, team-based learning and more.

The Definition
A learning culture is one where the employees are not only actively interested in continuous learning but also are freely sharing their newfound knowledge with others.

Robert Grossman expands on this in a 2015 article in HR Magazine, explaining how a learning culture is “a community of workers instilled with a ‘growth mindset.’”

The Business Case
Based on the number of articles and research I’ve read on this topic, there is a strong correlation between learning and business success.

As Edward Hess, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, explains, “Companies that learn fastest and adapt well to changing environments perform the best over time.”

One example of a changing environment is technology, which can eliminate some positions altogether. “…the positions that are emerging require quick thinking, creativity, and high social and emotional intelligence,” says Hess.

In short, businesses need “learning culture” workers—employees who will provide their organizations with a wealth of ideas for new products, services and processes. (Because that’s something a computer can’t do.)

Creating the Culture
Mark Feller’s 8 Tips for Creating a Learning Culture states that in a learning culture, everyone is expected to improve their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). We might be tempted to think that since we offer training in our organizations, we therefore have a learning culture. But, not so fast—can we say that continuous learning is pervasive throughout our workplace? Can we point to examples where employees are actively sharing and teaching?

Hess suggests we should define the behaviors we want and the behaviors we do not want. For example, if you want employees to challenge the status quo and be candid with their colleagues at all levels, you must teach employees how to do that. We need to incorporate it into our organization’s approach to learning. Likewise, leaders need to model the behavior they want to see, and they need to allow employees to experiment and to fail. Experts say that failure is integral to learning.

Make It a Core Value
From the time someone is hired and on-boarded into an organization, HR and line managers need to “talk up” the culture of learning and training and development opportunities. Frankly, it should become one of your organization’s core values.

One way to tell if you are making an impact is to survey your employees. For example, if you conduct engagement surveys, see if there is any improvement in answers about employee development and learning. If you offer an online library or a learning management system, assess whether employees are taking advantage of this format to learn.

Assess Readiness
Many of us will need to begin to infuse the mindset of a learning culture into our organizations. We can expect to receive resistance from some who are less eager for change and support from others who enjoy the benefits of this approach. Leverage your early adopters and position them on key projects and other initiatives, so their behavior can “rub off” and begin to permeate throughout your organization.

Reward “how” someone has accomplished something and not just “what” was accomplished. This will reinforce that we value what we say we value.

The Bottom Line
Like it or not, we need to hire smart and look for candidates who have a penchant for learning and are comfortable sharing their knowledge. Using behavioral interviewing and assessments, find out if applicants are inclined to take calculated risks and whether they like demanding tasks.

Risk-taking or “failing forward” needs to be supported by your organization. And yes—we need to encourage mistakes as long as they support learning and growth. If there are repercussions for making mistakes, employees will become “risk-averse.”

Give teams stretch assignments requiring them to innovate and master new skills. Recognize teams rather than individual performance. Reward what you say you value.

Finally, model the behavior you’re seeking to achieve by becoming a life-long learner yourself and continuously monitor outcomes of learning programs to ensure everyone is engaged and challenged. “You can’t take your learning culture for granted,” Hess says. “Maintaining it requires rigor and daily vigilance.”
I think Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting in Coral Gables, Fl., sums it up best, “In a learning culture, you’ll find people learning because they want to.”

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